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Profile: Talib Tabatabai
Talib Tabatabai was a participant or observer in the following events:
Jay Hallen, a 24-year old Yale graduate, is bored with his job at a real-estate firm. He is fascinated with the Middle East, and has taken some Arabic classes and read some history books about the region. He contacts Reuben Jeffrey, an adviser to CPA head L. Paul Bremer whom Hallen had met in 2002 when trying to land a job at the White House, and asks if there is a job for him in Baghdad.
'I Don't Have a Finance Background' - Three weeks later, Hallen is in Baghdad, and meets with Thomas Foley, the CPA official in charge of privatizing Iraq’s state-owned enterprises. Foley, a former classmate of President Bush and a major Republican donor, says he is putting Hallen in charge of Baghdad’s stock exchange. Hallen is shocked. “Are you sure?” Hallen asks. “I don’t have a finance background.” No problem, Foley responds. He will be the project manager; his subordinates will do the actual work. Before the invasion, Baghdad’s stock exchange was primitive by American standards; author Rajiv Chandrasekaran will describe it as loud, boisterous, and, despite all appearances, quite functional. After the invasion it was looted to the bare walls and ignored by the first wave of US economic reconstruction specialists. But Iraqi brokers and businessmen want it reopened, so the CPA acquiesces.
Revamping the Exchange - Hallen launches an ambitious, if almost entirely ignorant, plan to modernize and upgrade the stock exchange to make it the most technologically sophisticated exchange in the Arab world. He also wants to implement a new securities law that would make the exchange independent of the Finance Ministry. The Iraqi brokers and businessmen who clamored for the exchange to reopen are horrified at Hallen’s plans. “People are broke and bewildered,” broker Talib Tabatabai—a graduate of Florida State’s business department—tells Hallen. “Why do you want to create enemies? Let us open the way we were.” Tabatabai, like other brokers, believes Hallen’s plan is ludicrously grandiose. “It was something so fancy, so great, that it couldn’t be accomplished,” he will later recall. But Hallen is unmoved.
Hallen's View - “Their laws and regulations were completely out of step with the modern world,” Hallen will later say. “There was just no transparency in anything. It was more of a place for Saddam and his friends to buy up private companies that they otherwise didn’t have a stake in.” To just reopen the exchange the way it was, Hallen will insist, “would have been irresponsible and short-sighted.” Hallen recruits a team of American volunteers, most with no more experience or knowledge of finance than he has, to rewrite the securities laws, train the brokers, and purchase the necessary computers. By the spring of 2004, CPA head Bremer approves the new laws and appoints nine Iraqis hand-picked by Hallen to become the exchange’s board of governors.
No CPA Role - The new exchange board names Tabatabai as its chairman. The new laws have no place for a CPA adviser as a decision-maker; immediately a conflict between Hallen and the board arises. Hallen wants to wait several more months for the new computer system to arrive and be installed; unwilling to wait, Tabatabai and the board members buy dozens of dry-erase boards for the exchange floor, and two days after Hallen’s tour ends, the exchange is open for business. Without CPA oversight, the exchange quickly begins functioning more or less as it did before the invasion. When asked what would have happened had Hallen not been assigned to reopen the exchange, Tabatabai will answer: “We would have opened months earlier. He had grand ideas, but those ideas did not materialize.… Those CPA people reminded me of Lawrence of Arabia.” [Washington Post, 9/17/2006]
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